The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Our culture needed an adult. Gayle King rose to the challenge.

Gayle King, host of “CBS This Morning,” is having a moment — one that has been more than 20 years in the making. (Chris Sorensen/For The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — The reimagined “CBS This Morning” is in the middle of a commercial break as Gayle King clippety-clops through the show’s green room doling out chipper hellos as she makes her way back to the set. She settles into the center seat between her two new colleagues. A giant yellow CBS “eye” looms over her shoulder like her own personal sun.

It’s late May and the room’s temperature is set to goose bumps. The crew is padding around in sneakers and utilitarian blah. Co-anchors Anthony Mason, 62, and Tony Dokoupil, 38, are a mash-up of baby-boomer Wall Street grays and rep stripes with a millennial skinny tie and Vince sneakers. King, 64, is the light, the energy, the heat. Her stilettos look as though they have been dipped in confetti. Her dress is cobalt blue. Caramel-colored streaks meander through her brown bob. The heart-shaped diamond necklace that twinkles in her decolletage is just large enough to make you wonder: Is that real? Yes, it is.

Getting to this moment has been a slow, steady build that suddenly lurched into overdrive. It’s been powered by upheaval at the network’s news division, by King’s interview with R. Kelly — which was Shakespearean in its drama and pathos — and by King’s basic-common-sense public persona.

She watched and reported as the career of her co-anchor and friend Charlie Rose unraveled after eight women accused him of sexual harassment in November 2017. A show that was once rising in the ratings was nose-diving. Keeping King became imperative; there was no one else to right the ship. In her new contract negotiated earlier this year, the network paid her royally — as King has emerged as the Tiffany Network’s biggest star.

King is, perhaps, what the culture needs right now: a soothing voice of reason, an adult who isn’t drowning in cynicism, who is still capable of being let down by her fellow humans if only because she still has faith in them. Someone who lives in this real-world “Truman Show” without feeling the need to perform.

“I think she’s the most natural person on TV today,” Dokoupil says. “She takes the [teleprompter] as a suggestion. She’s a great ad libber.”

King’s interview style is conversational. Her face doesn’t flash with skepticism. Her brow doesn’t furrow — a reflection of her control rather than a symptom of Botox dependence. She sits with charm-school posture, hands in lap. She has a tendency to repeat phrases for emphasis; and her questions can sound like a mix of therapy and parlor game: This made you feel, how?

King asks the question on the viewer’s mind — the question that’s journalistically sound but not necessarily flashy or high-minded. Her questions rarely have the side benefit of making her look uniquely informed or hard-hitting.

“Where does Opie sit with you?” she asks director Ron Howard on that May morning, when he comes to publicize his documentary “Pavarotti.” After a segment about robo-taxis, King deflates the whole story by wondering aloud: Isn’t that just another name for a driverless car? The green room erupts in a chorus of “that’s what I was thinking!”

“I think it’s okay not to act like you know something,” King says in an interview later. “I don’t think because you ask a question that it reveals, ‘God, she doesn’t know something.’ I never think that. I think there is a way to engage people and have a conversation and not feel lesser than.”

In February, King interviewed Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) in the midst of his agita over a blackface photo found on his yearbook page. She listened as Northam pleaded ignorance to the full impact of blackface and then exclaimed: “But governor!” She was an appalled Everyday Jane. Her tone suggested disappointment rather than judgment.

Her R. Kelly interview in March reverberated across the culture, not for the facts it revealed but for the emotions it unleashed. King sat facing the musician, who has been charged with multiple counts of sexual assault, in a politely adorned hotel suite as he erupted.

Her makeup artist Lazarus Baptiste snapped a picture of the scene and describes the decisive moment as King sitting solemnly like “Whistler’s Mother” with Kelly towering over her with his arm outstretched like a grandiose “Hamlet holding Yorick’s skull.” King’s voice, a mellow contralto, kept repeating the singer’s given name: “Robert. Robert. Robert.”

“If there was a thought bubble, it’d be like, ‘Okay, you have to sit here and wait until he’s done with whatever he’s doing,’ ” King recalls. “My sole motivation at that point was, ‘Please don’t let him leave. Please don’t let him leave. Please don’t let him leave.’ ”

“I really did believe it was a breakdown; he was so angry,” King says. “He went from zero to a two to a six to an eight to a 12. All right before my eyes.”

“I think people were surprised that in that moment I didn’t run out of the room or I didn’t say, ‘Hey, don’t do that.’ I really did just let him be,” King says. “The fact that I just sat there, I think it was very surprising to people.”

The R. Kelly interview ratcheted up King’s stock at CBS and beyond. “It was a game-changer,” she says.

It showed that King had chops.

R&B singer R. Kelly denied sexual abuse allegations against him in a “CBS This Morning" interview that aired on March 6 and 7. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

When people meet King, they often begin by offering what they believe to be a compliment but which is really a kind of insult: They attribute her smooth delivery on air to her being a "quick study." They do this because they don't realize she's had a long career of her own — for years they only knew her as "Oprah's best friend."

The two met in Baltimore as 20-something single women. It was King’s first job in television.

As a student at the University of Maryland, King had planned to be a child psychologist, but she had a voice for television — a low register, crisp pronunciation, speech that travels at a touring speed — and someone from the local television station suggested she apply for a job.

That was how, at 21, King ended up as a production assistant in Baltimore with an annual salary of about $12,000. She later worked in Washington and Kansas City, Mo., and spent 18 years as an anchor at the CBS affiliate in Hartford, Conn., where she also hosted her own daytime show.

Folks presume that King has benefited enormously from her friendship: King had a talk show on Winfrey’s OWN television network; she is editor-at-large of Winfrey’s magazine.

Meanwhile, there is little consideration of this question: What does it mean to be Gayle’s friend? What does it mean to stand in Gayle’s light?

To be King’s friend is to find loyalty and discretion. King is the friend who will grab the doggie bag because of course you will want it later even if you don’t feel like dealing with it now. She is rich. And she is fun.

“The thing I learned from her is how to be nicer,” says Adam Glassman, the creative director of O, the Oprah Magazine, who has known her for 19 years.

When King debuted on “CBS This Morning” in 2012,” Rose led the hard-news coverage for the first hour of the two-hour show. King didn’t come to the table until the halfway mark — for the lighter fare.

“I can’t say, ‘God, I felt lesser than because I joined at 8 o’clock,’ ” King says. She knew what she was getting into. “But once they started moving me into the 7:30 and moving me into the 7, I go, ‘I like sitting up here from the very beginning. I like that.’ ”

She shared the stage with Rose and a third anchor, Norah O’Donnell, two colleagues who often seemed to be trying to out-gravitas each other. The chemistry seemed to work as “CBS This Morning,” stubbornly stuck in third place behind “Today” and “Good Morning America,” began to rise in the ratings. Then the #MeToo movement swept through CBS, laying waste to Rose, along with “60 Minutes” executive producer Jeff Fager and network chairman Les Moonves.

King and O’Donnell were the shellshocked anchors delivering the litany of bad news to viewers.

“I always considered Charlie a friend and I don’t believe that you abandon your friends,” says King, who remains in touch with Rose. She believes there’s room for mercy. “You have people that have done far more heinous things that are forgiven. But comeback doesn’t mean that you get to come back to doing what you were doing before.”

On Nov. 21, "CBS This Morning" co-hosts Norah O'Donnell and Gayle King weighed in on the allegations against Charlie Rose. (Video: Reuters)

Has King forgiven Rose his sins? “It’s not up to me to forgive Charlie. That’s between him and whoever. Yeah. I can’t really speak on that.”

What she will say is that for as much good that the #MeToo movement has done, it’s also been problematic.

“I’ve been in situations where people have said something that I thought was inappropriate, but it never occurred to me to call them on it. I would just sit and just let it go or not respond. But I think women coming up today, and I think men, too, will know that’s no longer cute. It’s no longer funny. So I think that’s important,” King says.

Still, she sympathizes with someone like Aziz Ansari, whose career was upended in 2018 after published a story in which a woman accused him of taking advantage of her. Some readers felt the article, written during the height of #MeToo revelations, mischaracterized what was essentially a bad date.

“I can’t wait to go see his show. I thought what happened to him was very unfair,” she says. “I’m hoping he does come back.”

With its ratings plummeting, “CBS This Morning” added John Dickerson as a third anchor. He brought an easygoing and thoughtful presence, but he often had the distant mien of a tourist just passing through.

CBS veteran Susan Zirinsky, newly arrived to helm the network’s news division, announced last month that O’Donnell would anchor the evening news; Dickerson would report for “60 Minutes.” And “CBS This Morning” — or, as the network has rebranded it, CTM — is newly rebuilt around King. “She has the ability to engage people,” Zirinsky says. “People want to talk to Gayle, both the accuser and the accused in the same story. That’s about trust. . . . I don’t see anyone like her on television right now.”

Zirinsky, a longtime CBS journalist who was the inspiration for Holly Hunter’s character in “Broadcast News,” is the first woman to lead the news division.

“I have always been proud to work at CBS, even when we were going through the s---storm,” King says. But if Zirinsky “wasn’t where she is, I don’t think I would be at CBS. I don’t think so. No I don’t.”

After the show, King steps onto West 57th Street, where her black SUV is waiting, and she heads to Norma's, the restaurant in the Parker New York hotel that is famous for its $2,000 lobster-and-caviar frittata, and where King is a frequent diner. Toting multiple overstuffed bags that would break lesser women, she teeters through the hotel's bordello-red lobby and into the bright, white light of the restaurant, where the late-morning diners silently marvel at her arrival.

Do you care what King orders for breakfast? If you are one of the 682,000 people who follow her on Instagram, you probably do because her Instagram is filled with both intimate and mundane snippets of her life, including her periodic disappointment with her escalating weight. On more than one occasion, she has posted a picture of the number on the scale and, most recently, her bare feet straddled a glowing 175.2.

“I was sort of horrified about it. I’m like, ‘Gayle, can you get a pedicure?’ ” Glassman says. “She’s not afraid to show warts and all, not because it’s calculated, but because that’s just who she is. She’ll come in and say, ‘I’m doing a cleanse today,’ and she’ll have her green juice and in the other hand a cupcake.”

Commenters have told her that she is brave to post her weight. Such transparency!

“I have a mirror. You have eyes. So to me it’s silly to lie about it,” she says. “People say, ‘You talk about your weight; you talk about your age; you don’t mind being photographed with no makeup.’ I just don’t have that kind of hang-up.”

Well, she did once: “I was at the gym one day at the Beverly Wilshire — I like that hotel — in L.A. This guy came walking in and I thought, ‘Oh God, I wish I would’ve put on some lipstick today,’” says King, who is divorced with two children.

King orders the quesadilla with chorizo, along with a single plain pancake. She is especially fond of the complimentary smoothie: a shot glass of whipped fruit. She has four shots.

“I always end up taking half the quesadilla home,” she explains with the same focus she gave to parsing the R. Kelly dynamic. “The one time I didn’t take it, I said, ‘Oh, I’m not going to want to eat it later.’ And then that night, I was going, ‘Why didn’t I take that quesadilla?’ So now it’s better to have it rather than kicking yourself for not taking it.”

King considers these small things: the psychology of doggie bags, the design of airport bathrooms, the existential value of a free ice cream sundae. This is her skill: her easy patter about the connective tissue of life that links strangers.

She is a great broadcaster, not a newscaster, says Mason, her co-anchor. The former is able to talk about anything with anyone.

King has accumulated a lengthy list of famous friends. She pals around with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.). She’s chummy with Michelle Obama. She attended the baby shower of Meghan, Duchess of Sussex.

Do you say to your friend: Don’t tell me newsworthy information if you don’t want it in the news. Or do you say: Whatever you tell me will be off the record. Is each story, each revelation, a negotiation?

“I knew Cory was going to run [for president], but I would never have said that before he announced it,” King says. “Even at the expense of my job, I would never betray a friendship.”

She attended private events in the Obama White House. She didn’t brag about being there and refused to disclose who else was. “I do think that I’m entitled to a private life,” King says, “even though I may have some very public friends.”

But if you breathe the rarefied air of fame, it’s in your system. And so even if she doesn’t betray confidences, King still has access to valuable context.

“Sometimes, we’re reporting on something, I can go, ‘Well, that’s just not true. That’s just not true.’ And we can’t report it that way.”

By her estimation, she has never angered her bosses because she refused to share information. Even when her colleagues peppered her on air with questions about Meghan’s shower, she remained mum.

After breakfast, King goes to her office at O magazine. She slips into clogs and attends run-throughs — those fashion deliberations made famous in “The Devil Wears Prada” as the setting of an exegesis on cerulean blue.

In these sessions, Glassman is a more benevolent Miranda Priestly and King is the voice of Everyday Jane trying to understand how it is that stripes and floral patterns are an acceptable combination.

“I explain that the colors are similar and so it works. Or it’s a smaller print and a larger print so it works,” Glassman says. “She’ll say, ‘I have a blue dress; I need blues shoes, right? ‘No, you can wear black. ‘Can I really wear black?’ ”

“People relate to her. The dress may be a little too tight or a hem twisted because she’s put on two pairs of Spanx,” Glassman says. “She has a style, but it doesn’t look unapproachable. Some people look so overly groomed; they look like a model. Gayle looks very real.”

King refuses both hubris and false modesty. Her latest contract is reportedly worth $11 million a year. She is living in higher cotton these days, but she was already knee deep.

“My definition of success used to be being able to fly first class whenever I want to and go wherever I want to go,” King says. “I met that goal a long time ago.”

So what is her new definition? “This sounds very elitist, so I’m not going to say it.”

Oh, come on, Gayle. You’ve already told us your weight.

“For Thanksgiving, I always take my three sisters and their husbands and their kids — so it’s a party of like 13 — and we’ll go somewhere: Turks and Caicos, Anguilla, Puerto Rico. I would really like to charter a yacht so that I could take them to Europe and we just sail around for 10 days. And if you looked at yacht prices, you just know that’s outrageous.”

We have not checked yacht rentals recently. What do they run?

“You’re looking at like $750,000 to a million dollars for one week,” King says. “I’ve been on yachting vacations. They are the best. If I could do that for my family, where I could take 13 people on a yacht to Positano, to the Amalfi Coast, Nice and Cannes. I think that would be very cool. You have to make screw-it money. I don’t have my definition of screw-it money.”

But King has something even rarer. She is an African American, female broadcaster finding her most high-profile success at what many consider retirement age. She has accomplished this feat exuding earnest curiosity rather than gravitas. With certainty in her skills and at home in her skin, King is her own best friend.

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